Solomon Islands, China and geographic metaphors
A recently signed Security Cooperation Framework Agreement between the Solomon Islands and China has generated more attention to the Solomon Islands since the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.
The agreement announced by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare allows the Solomons to request police and military personnel from China. The ostensible purposes include assistance in maintaining “social order” and carrying out disaster response and humanitarian assistance.
While details of the agreement have been leaked, we are not sure about the exact terms since PM Sogavare is not yet required to release them.
This agreement with China comes on the heels of an agreement between China and Kiribati to refurbish an airstrip on Kanton Island in 2021. It is also the latest in bilateral agreements between China and South Pacific nations, including a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Papua New Guinea signed in 2018.
The Australian and American response has been immediate. It appears that Australia has been caught flat-footed and that Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to stumble. He was widely criticized for “insulting behavior” by Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and others in a 2019 Pacific Island Forum meeting. Australia was unrelenting in drawing a red line on climate change initiatives which would require Australia to cut back on coal and natural gas extraction.
Australian political conversation is all about what is going on in “their own backyard.” Last week, Morrison announced that a Chinese naval base in the Solomons is a “red line” at “our doorstep.” Some people are addicted to drawing red lines.
The Kanton airstrip has been alternatively described as being on “America’s doorstep” or “backyard.” It is about 800 miles from American Samoa, which is a long doorstep to America’s only territory south of the Equator. The flurry of geographical metaphors including several which, when applied to Guahan, reveal the user’s perspective and perhaps an incomplete description of reality.
Guahan is used to being called the “tip of the spear.” But we have also been a lily pad and the “Westernmost outpost” of America as if the island were a kind of Fort Apache in the American West. Guahan is also the strategic and centralized “hub” for American power projection and defense at the same time.
Do metaphors matter? The description of South Pacific nations as being in Australia’s backyard seems harmless enough. But to many, it simultaneously insults ostensibly sovereign neighbors and implies a policing responsibility. Australia has neighbors not tenants on its turf. Policing responsibility is different than mutual security arrangements.
It is not clear whether this is a kind of Solomon Islands gambit that may result in something similar to the “bidding war” for a military base in Fiji between Australia and China. Under a previous initiative titled “Look North” by Fiji PM Bainimarama, China was given the opportunity to enter Fiji along many lines. Competition ensued between Australia and China to build a base. It ended in 2018 with a victory by Fiji’s “southern” neighbor, Australia. Maybe they were just looking for more southern attention all along.
The American response in the Solomons has been almost immediate. Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific coordinator for the National Security Council, went to Honiara to meet with the leaders of the island nation. He was reassured by Sogavare that no permanent Chinese military presence is envisioned.
Campbell issued one of those cryptic messages that said in part: “If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-launching capabilities, or a military installation, the United States would then have significant concerns and would respond accordingly.” In diplomatic speech, this is not a specific course of action, but an intention to act.
Campbell also said the U.S. will now expedite the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Honiara. The U.S. embassy was closed down almost 30 years ago. It may not have seemed necessary since Australia is responsible for that part of its backyard.
Nothing attracts more attention in today’s environment than talking about China. Nothing can create panic like actually agreeing to do something with China. Climate change is interesting. Policing money laundering or human trafficking is something that is supposed to be going on all the time. But if one can connect any of it to China, then you are going to get all the attention that you think you deserve.
Having a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is supposed to be one of the cornerstones of the recently announced White House Indo-Pacific strategy released in February. It is based on upholding international laws and norms to include freedom of navigation. Of course, if China is exercising that freedom for their Navy, then the United States will respond accordingly.
This is the backdrop for the ongoing military buildup in Guahan as well as the negotiations with the freely associated states. The U.S. negotiator has been selected for that effort. In the meantime, the number of conversations about the buildup and Guahan’s role has increased probably tenfold over the past few months.
The release of the White House report, the contemplated expenditures for Guahan’s missile defense and the apparent “instability” in the South Pacific have generated consistent attention in think tank, defense and diplomatic circles. Of course, defense contractors and advocates for missile defense programs have been very active making the case for various systems to be utilized in Guahan.
The generally conservative Hudson Institute sponsored two panels on “Defending Guam” earlier this month. Some panelists were surprisingly open in acknowledging that the island cannot really be defended from missile attacks. The approach is to help it survive an initial attack in order to respond and present a continuing platform for military activity after the island survives the first strike.
The defense of the island has been justified as protecting military assets and protecting the “U.S. homeland.” Whether Guahan is really part of homeland defense or not is open to question, at least according to one of the panelists. China expert Oriana Skyler Mastro says the “homeland defense” argument is meant for China’s consumption. If the island were attacked, will this result in an attack on Beijing? They want the Chinese to believe it, but many Americans may conclude the opposite.
Guahan is a territory of the United States. It is who we are. Whether we are part of the “homeland” or the national body politic remains to be seen. Apparently, by a vote of 8-1 on the Supplemental Security Income issue, the U.S. Supreme Court still believes that we are an “unincorporated territory of the United States” subject to congressional decisions. Only Congress can decide whether we are part of the “homeland.” They can also change their mind later on.
That is for another, very extended conversation. More metaphors yet to come. Unincorporated or unattached may be the geographic metaphor that hits the target for Guahan. Is there a missile defense system for that?
Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org